by guest contributor Yolanda M. Carrington, originally published at The Primary Contradiction
As you probably guessed from watching the clip, the Merrie Melodies cartoon Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943) is a supposed hot jazz retelling of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, animated and produced by Warner Brothers animator Robert Clampett. (The character is named “So White”—the short is titled “Coal Black” because producer Leon Schlesinger wanted to avoid confusion with the Disney film.)
This short is one of the infamous “Censored Eleven,” eleven Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts that were yanked from rebroadcast syndication in 1968 to accommodate that era’s swiftly-changing racial climate. Many of these banned cartoons (the Censored Eleven represents a mere fraction of the racist animation produced before World War II) are widely available over the Internet, since most of these works have long entered the public domain.
According to Wikipedia, Clampett was said to have been heavily influenced by jazz performers and hipsters from the 1940s Black jazz scene in New York, as well as the jazz-themed all-Black movie musicals that were wildly popular with audiences during that period. He and his animation team actually visited a Black jazz club in Los Angeles (ahhh….studying the Negroes!) to get a feel for the interaction and lingo. Today, despite having been banned for four decades, Coal Black is rated by animation experts as Clampett’s masterpiece, as well as one of the greatest animated cartoons ever made.
In 2006, we Americans find ourselves in a political situation nearly identical to the one faced by Coal Black’s audience in 1943. I know that for many of you, watching Coal Black was extremely offensive, even sickening. But I really wanted folks to see this short, and I was really hoping that others would recognize what I saw when I watched the clip, which was such a heavy experience for me that I had to watch it over and over again.
Honestly, I have never seen anything like it, a piece of media that is so offensive yet so crystal-clear in its political message. I wanted everyone to recognize the eons and eons of memes in the narrative and to make the connections between those memes to grasp the overall message.
For me, Coal Black stands as one of the clearest expressions of the relationship between white supremacy, patriarchy, and militarism. Needless to say, the short is rife with almost every racist meme ever projected onto African Americans.
An inventory of the damage:
• Black woman as Mammy (maternal storyteller in opening scene); ugly asexual villain (The Wicked Witch); sexualized Jezebel (So White)
• Black people as subhuman, semi-animal. Characters other than So White (who’s human yet whorish) more closely resemble cartoon whales, gorillas, and ducks (see Prince “Chawmin”) than homo sapiens
• Black folks as prone to extreme violence- Witch’s hiring of the “Murder Incorporated” outfit (Black ghetto version of the benevolent hunter) to “black out So White!”
•Black woman as insatiable whore-So White sleeps with all the members of Murder Inc (suggested by dialogue)—as opposed to pure heart appeal in original version—to avoid assassination attempt.
• Black men as oversexed hustlers (Chawmin), violent criminals, bumbling idiots, and the (classic!) lazy sambos.
These stereotypes are no surprise to those of us who know the racist history of American media. For me, the intense negrophobia of Coal Black, while deeply infuriating, is only one component of the overall political message. What truly makes Coal Black a jingoistic powerhouse is its reframing of (Black) male sexual potency—traditionally cast as violent and predatory—as patriotic, and its use of darky iconography to whip up anti-Japanese sentiment (note that the US was smack in the middle of World War II). Who couldn’t help but gasp at the blink-and-you-miss-it racist message on Murder Inc’s company car?
Let’s take a look at the Sebben (crude jive there, Clampett) Dwarfs. When So White encounters them, they are enlisted GIs training to go to war (giddily singing the plantation-happy refrain: “We’re in the Army now, we’re in the Army now!”) So White’s domestic chores for the Dwarfs in exchange for her room and board are reframed here as sacrifices for the war effort. Their heroism as good fighting men is juxtaposed against the image of Prince Chawmin, the conk-haired, gold tooth/flashy suit/monocle-wearing, Cadillac driving, ghetto debonair suitor who tries to win So White’s heart. (Between you and me, Chawmin looks like Daffy Duck’s evil twin. Seriously.) In both the traditional story and the 1937 Disney blockbuster, The Prince’s kiss is pure and powerful enough to awaken Snow White out of a poison-induced death. Yet here the “Prince,” try as he might, can’t kiss So White awake at all, no matter how hard he tries—and the sheer amount of energy he expends renders him old and weary. (Read: Insatiable woman wears man out.) Yet the smallest GI Dwarf snaps her awake with just one kiss. Chawmin can’t help but ask: “What you got dat make So White think you so hot?” Baby GI Dwarf’s unforgettable answer: “Well dat is a millatery secret!” He then plants a second kiss on So White so potent that her pigtails flip into twin American flags. Damn.
That’s said it all, folks.
What also hit home for me about this sixty-three year old cartoon is the realization of how we simultaneously romanticize the past and forget history. With all the debate these days about “violence in the media” and the ever-growing pornification and raunchiness of mainstream culture, who would have ever thunk that cartoons from the wholesome 1940s could be so full of sex and violence?